Swiss Drone laws: Should you be concerned?

Drones are on the rise. This is pretty clear, by a surprising amount of media coverage, which may seem weird for just one of the many technological advances made in the last ten years. Yet they are still making headlines. Why? Its not just because they are a revolutionary tool for filmmakers, humanitarian services and surveillance companies, but also because the conception of drone laws has been very slow and rather weak. At least in some countries.

Not convinced? Look to the USA, which has one of the biggest commercial markets in the world. It’s been the site for several drone accidents, many of which could have been fatal. For example, the drone that crashed on the White House lawn which provoked a security threat. Or Enrique Iglesias, who, during a concert, had his fingers sliced open by a drone rotor (then he proceeds to draw a heart on his shirt, with his blood, because improv). Arguably he was the one that reached up to the drone, but you see what I’m getting at here. It doesn’t matter whether your hand was sliced by a drone, if a drone smashed through the windshield of your car, or if it plummeted from the sky, out of battery or out of controllable range. Drones are currently not very safe, and that’s partially up to the intelligence of the operator, and the companies that are developing the technology.

Enrique Iglesias after his finger was sliced by the drone. He continued the concert.
Enrique Iglesias after his fingers were sliced by the drone. He continued the concert.

However, it’s also up to the Governments. The USA was still developing drone laws when the drone crashed onto the White House lawn. Even in states where laws are in place, they are not reducing the risk of a drone accidents. Videos from the perspective of involved drones are being uploaded to YouTube daily, resulting in a rather entertaining phenomenon, whilst also providing evidence that the drone issue is still far from solved.

Drones delivering beer at a music festival. Photo: hoovy.co
Drones delivering beer at a music festival. Photo: hoovy.co

So now for the big question; If I want to fly a drone in Switzerland, what will get me thrown in jail and what won’t?

To confirm, yes, Switzerland does indeed have drone laws, and fortunately, they are pretty straightforward. According to FOCA, the Federal Office of Civil Aviation in Switzerland, any drone (or remotely piloted aerial vehicle) under 30kg can basically be operated without any special permissions. However, there are three main limitations:

  • The pilot of the aircraft must be kept in direct visual contact at all times (and you can’t use binoculars to technically still see your aircraft).
  • The aircraft is not allowed to fly over large crowds of people, or within 100 meters of a large crowd of people.
  • The total mass of the aircraft (cameras, battery packs, special equipment included) cannot be more that 30 kilograms).

It’s good to see the Swiss keeping people safe and identifying the areas where accidents are most likely to happen, and fortunately, for all the filmmakers who want to get really daring shots over a crowd, FOCA can give out special permits that are exceptions to the limitations above. However they advise applying for a permit several months in advance, and so far, the paperwork looks pretty substantial. Drone pilots have to perform a “total hazard and risk assessment”, which consists of a full description of the flight, including detailed dates, times locations and flight durations, a detailed description of the aircraft, an analysis of the risks associated with flying over a group of people and bla bla bla the list goes on (you can read more on the FOCA site).

A DJI Phantom in flight. The Phantom has become a poster-boy for the rising drone industry.
A DJI Phantom in flight. The Phantom has become a poster-boy for the rising drone industry.

A couple of obligatory rules:

  • The drone must be fully piloted, no automated drones (weep for the Lily drone).
  • Drones cannot be flown within 5 kilometers of any kind of airport.

So that’s it, right? Sadly, no. Because there are a couple of extra concerns when it comes to a drone bearing a camera. Drone cameras don’t have any exceptional rules to the already strict Swiss filming rules, so film-makers should familiarize themselves with those before they set about flying a drone right up to an unsuspecting person on the street. Basically, ask permission before filming an individual, otherwise it is alright to film large crowds of people.

So should I be concerned about Swiss drone laws? For your legal safety, probably. You should double check nothing has changed between now and when you fly your drone. Don’t lose sight of it. Don’t fly it near crowds. Don’t use it as a flying mule. Don’t fly it near an airport or airplane, and most importantly, don’t let the drone decide.

Otherwise, sure, go for it! Drones are amazing tools for filmmakers, security and humanitarian groups, and though you may only use it for one of those things, at least you don’t need a license to fly!


The information presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of The Update. We are reporting either the facts or opinions held by third parties related to the subject of the article.